Late winter / early spring weather in the northeast is usually a mixture of snow and rain that is best described as ‘not very fun.’ It’s a good time to stay inside and watch films, which for me means streaming them on Netflix instant. Here are some films I enjoyed in the past two months.
(Disclaimer: My taste in films is quite dark)
The Turin Horse
This is an anvil of a film, dropping the full weight of nineteenth century humanity on the viewer’s head. It’s a painful, paced, and myopic look at father and daughter weathering an apocalyptic dust storm in their dilapidated country villa. The father (who beat the horse that Nietzsche tried to save, pre-downward spiral) is a broken man, who can only hobble around, bark orders at his daughter, and shove piping-hot and half-cooked potatoes into his mouth. The daughter has more redeeming qualities–there are possibilities of a better life floating around her, but circumstances keep her stuck with her father, patiently dressing and undressing him and tending to all of the monotonous household duties.
It’s a beautiful film, with impeccable black-and-white cinematography. That paired with a difficult and often unnerving look at nineteenth century domestic routines made this, in my mind, something like a historic Eraserhead. As for the Nietzsche connection, there are philosophical rants and mysterious book to analyze, which I won’t venture to do here. I will say that, knowing the story of Nietzsche’s breakdown in Turin, I went into this film with a bias against the cruel monster of (a) man who beat the horse, but I came out with a different perspective. The man and daughter in this film appear as the beasts of burden–even the horse has enough sense to give up and not try to fight through the storm. So maybe Nietzsche, in throwing his arm around the horse, was not simply crying out against man’s cruelty against the horse, but was crying for man, for the “laughingstock,” or more appropriately, for that “painful embarrassment.”
Beyond the Black Rainbow
Critics of Panos Cosmatos’ debut film remarked that it isn’t really a film, that there is nothing there, that it was like ‘gazing at a lava lamp for nearly two hours.’ I think they missed the point on a few different levels.
Firstly, there is a lot there, despite it having very little semblance of a plot. The retro look and feel is probably the best resurrection of 80’s aesthetic I’ve ever seen. The soundtrack by Jeremy Schmidt of Black Mountain is amazing. It’s a synthy ambient record I would listen to a lot if it was available as a record (someone needs to get on top of that). Cosmatos’ also creates a kaleidoscope of references and homages: Enter the Void, 2001, The Shining, and American Pyscho, to name a few.
The film is also very much a postmodern piece of art. The critics were, after all, correct in saying that it isn’t really a film. It’s simulacrum, a film watching films, hence the kaleidoscopic references. I wonder if Cosmatos is making some subtle statement here. If the younger generation can only create by reference to the past (think retro filters on what are often truly creative photographs), then Cosmatos has created some sort of hipster masterpiece.
Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of Toynbee Tiles
Although a documentary, this film watched like a crime mystery. Three amateur investigators, including the protagonist Justin Duerr, team up to investigate the origins of the enigmatic Toynbee Tiles, and they actually figure it out!
I went to bed after watching this film feeling creeped out. Really only Lynch can send me to dreamland scared, so I was impressed. The fact that a Philadelphia recluse had, for decades, planted schizophrenic street art around the country was unnerving. I think it was the combination of audacity and insanity.
As in any great documentary, there were several subtle gems. One was the story of the Toynbee tiler jamming his way on to television, sending out cryptic messages to Phildelphia news watchers. Another was discovering that the tiler was called the ‘birdman’ by neighborhood residents because he cared for birds in his boarded-up home, shortly after the viewer is presented with a random clip of the chief investigator, Duerr, mending the leg of a injured bird in his home. Weird.
If you’re a fan of Tim & Eric like me, it’s worth seeing this film just to watch Tim Heidecker in a serious role, itself kind of a head trip. The opening scene of partying, beer spraying, and male nudity makes the film appear kind of jokey and fratty, but it’s more than that. It’s basically a really painful stare at the lives of aging, trust fund Brooklyn hipsters. And it’s probably more than that.
There is one scene where Heidecker’s character Swanson, buzzed, spews offensive pseud-intellectual nonsense to a cute 20-something who later sleeps with him. It’s painful because it serves as a sort of mirror for a lot of young people in NYC (myself included). We’ve all participated in vapid conversations and meaningless encounters that would be excruciating if recorded and re-watched.
What makes the film complicated and deep is that Swanson is not 100% bratty hipster–he’s actually multi-dimensional, seemingly searching for something good or at least ‘real.’ At several points he does this kind of voyeuristic performance art, pretending to do various menial jobs like being a store clerk or taxi driver. In one revealing scene, he acts as a landscaper and asks the owner of the house if he and his fellow boys can use their pool, ‘translating’ their wishes from English to Spanish, much to the confusion of ‘the boys.’ After some awkwardness, the owner agrees, and soon thereafter Swanson just walks away from the job, leaving the other landscapers to enjoy a dip in the pool.
A lot of films are described as unflinching. This one really is. It gives prostitution the long stare that it deserves–so long, in fact, that the film actually ends with the ‘concealed’ act itself. Filmed in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Mexico, Whore’s Glory is cinéma vérité at it’s finest, leaving viewers (in this case, myself and my friend Mikael) wondering aloud, ‘how did the filmmakers get that footage?’ Then the credits rolled with German names, and it all seemed to make sense, at least to a fan of Herzog.
The great thing about this documentary is it’s range. Starting in Thailand, one gets the impression that the women’s lives, I dare say, are not that bad. Yes, the men you see selecting women in the ‘fishbowl’–as the brothel is called due to the large glass ‘stage’ that the women sit on while being selected by potential clients–are predictably creepy, especially, of course, the American men. But the women also seem empowered, and they display close bonds with their fellow working women. They even go out together to spend money on the ‘bar boys,’ their masculine equivalents.
Then comes Bangladesh, which is just heart-wrenching. Girls, some who appear as young as 12, are stuck in a horrific cycle of poverty and prostitution. They are relegated to labyrinthian slums, lorded over by madams who push the girls to turn over as many clients as they can per day (from a few comments, approximately 10-15). Near the end of the segment, a young girl looks into the camera and says that she knows that there has to be something other than this. It’s a distilled clip of suffering that leads one to think about possible exits to our insane world.
Mexico is not much better. The machismo of some of the male clients adds a rare offensive but humorous touch. The cinematography in this segment is also particularly amazing, the border town glowing bright green and orange under the flourescence. But the cycle of despair continues with prostitution and subsequent drug abuse. The Mexico segment culminates in the filming of an actual sexual act. It wasn’t particularly violent (although many are), nor was it disgusting (the man was young and soft-spoken), but it was just very transactional.